Want to be a global citizen? Learn another language!

There is an old joke that goes if you speak two languages you are bilingual. If you speak more than two languages you are multilingual. If you speak only one language, you are American. Of course, this does not hold true if you are one of the roughly 47 million people in the United States who speak a language other than English at home and also speak English well. In fact, despite our nation’s resistance, bilingualism is on the rise.

There is still a lot hostility toward learning languages in our society. Twenty-seven U.S. states name English as their sole official language. When President Obama suggested in a speech during his first term that we should make sure that all of our kids speak more than one language, he drew laughter and sharp criticism from English-only advocates. But more and more people, along with the media are starting to pay attention to the benefits of speaking more than one language.

TIME magazine published an article entitled “The Power of the Bilingual Brain” this past summer. A few highlights:

  • The state of Utah is implementing one of the most ambitious immersion language programs ever. About 20% of all elementary students in the state are working toward fluency in Spanish, Mandarin, French, and coming soon…Portuguese.
  • New research is showing that multi-linguals’ brains are more efficient when multitasking and reasoning.
  • Multilingualism may even delay the onset of dementia and full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

If any of these cognitive and health benefits are true, then why in the world are we not offering immersion language programs to more students in this country?

In Seattle Public Schools, we currently have four international elementary schools where students can spend half the day learning in a language other than English. They follow a two-way immersion model. Students are learning core subjects like math and science in Mandarin, Spanish, or Japanese. There are also two international middle schools and two international high schools, including Chief Sealth International, where I currently teach.

Spots in Seattle’s dual language classrooms are high in demand. Many parents rent or buy homes in the international school neighborhoods to secure an opportunity for their children to become bilingual. My own daughter was number 37 on the waiting list for a spot in a dual language kindergarten classroom this year (we do not live in the school’s neighborhood and she did not get in).

Dual language programs are certainly not only advantageous for English speakers who want to learn another language. A number of research studies demonstrate that English Language Learners also benefit greatly. In my high school, we have a class of eighteen freshmen who spent the past three years in a dual language program in their middle school. Most of them speak Spanish at home with their families and English at school with their friends.

I have been co-teaching in their dual language world history class for the first week and half of the school year (the permanent teacher is arriving from Spain in a few days). While the students naturally want to speak English to each other in their table groups, we have maintained a Spanish-only environment in the classroom. It is exciting to see them improving their academic language in both languages. (They each have two periods a day in Spanish and the other four are in English.)

I did not discover my own love of learning languages until I began learning Spanish in the seventh grade. In high school, I had an extraordinary Spanish teacher who motivated me to go on to major in Spanish in college. I studied abroad in South America for a year and ended up teaching Spanish a few years later. While the majority of students in the United States take just a couple of years of a world language in high school and stop there, I managed to beat the odds.

My biggest lesson throughout my years of study was that learning languages is much more than just a way to communicate. In the broader sense of global education, languages are a window into other cultures and worldviews. Learning a second (or third) language leads us toward becoming globally competent citizens.

As many of us aim to improve our teaching and assessment of 21st century skills, we must remember that language learning is an essential component of teaching our students how to be active global citizens.

What kinds of opportunities for kids to learn languages from a young age are there in the districts where you teach? What obstacles do you think might be in the way of creating more dual language programs in our schools and how might we overcome them? 

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  • SandyMerz

    More than a window

    I love knowing a second language and will argue with anyone who says it’s hard to learn one after a certain age. (I started really learning Spanish at 30.)  What’s hard is getting the time to practice while living a busy adult life.  But TV, particularly the news, but also the soaps is a great help. 

    I would add that languages aren’t just windows into cultures, but whole systems of thinking.  And to that I would add the need to learn languages like music, art, math, body language… really any form of symbolic representation opens up worlds because it opens up thinking.

  • NoahZeichner


    Absolutely Sandy! I completely agree that learning languages exposes us to new ways of thinking. And it has made me much more aware of my own worldview and how it relates to a whole world of different perspectives.

  • Jarauxwashington

    We want more!

    I work in one of the few schools for international studies (soon to be IB) in my county. The students there study mainly Spanish and a few study French . Last year mandarin was offered for a select few after school. Our student have immersion experience the 2nd semester of 7th and 8th grades however this experience is limited to their language class only. I would love for this experience to be more extensive and cover multiple subjects like you’ve stated above. I even tried to teach my science Class  all in Spanish a couple days out t he year (which is hilarious because my Spanish is very limited , but the kids help me out. Lol) 

    what suggestions do you have to extend the language learning experience beyond the language classrooms?




  • NoahZeichner

    Languages outside the language classroom

    Thanks for your comment Jaraux.

    I attended a dual language training this past summer where the instructor shared an idea called Languge of the Day (LOD). In an International Studies school you could have a different language each day of the week or you could just feature Spanish and French, the languages that you teach.

    For LOD, all school staff commit to using the LOD as best as they can throughout the day. It could be incorporated into the morning announcements, food in the lunch line, etc. There could be signs posted with words in all of the languages around the school. Even if students only pick up one or two words throughout the day, it would be a lot of fun. I’ve thought about doing this in our school (we teach Spanish, Japanese, and Mandarin) and adding languages that many of our students speak like Somali and Vietnamese. 

    Obviously, most staff members won’t be able to speak the languages of the day, but even saying good morning in the LOD in every classroom is a great start.

  • BriannaCrowley

    A Lifetime Dream of Mine…

    is to become bilingual. My sister recently made her own bilingual dream come true by moving to Colombia for 3 months to do a language-intensive study and cultural immersion. I would love to do the same some day! 

    You school sounds fascinating. How did it start the journey to be such a globally-minded school? 

    I thought your post was a great fit for our CTQ page in the GOOD.is community. I posted it there with a teaser. Here’s the link for you to check it out. 

  • ReneeMoore

    Truly Literate

    I may be telling my age here, but I can remember when–in this country–a person was not considered well-educated unless s/he was fluent in at least two languages. Certainly, every college graduate was expected to master at least one additional language. 

    Does anyone know of a K12 setting that has adopted the language immersion model made popular at Middlebury College’s (VT) famous language schools? Staff in each school speaks only the language being taught–from day one. It’s like being dropped into a foreign country. Students are only allowed to speak in the focus language, even on breaks and at meals. I would think this would be an interesting experiment, even for a short period (day, week) for native English speakers, as it would give them a taste of what those who come this country are often forced to do. 

  • Kleeberg


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  • Emmie Samantha

    A year ago mandarin was

    A year ago mandarin was offered for a chosen few after school. Our understudy have inundation encounter the second semester of seventh and eighth grades however this experience is constrained to their dialect class as it were. I would love for this experience to be more broad and cover numerous subjects like you’ve expressed previously. Assignment service .I even attempted to educate my science Class all in Spanish a few days out t he year (which is funny in light of the fact that my Spanish is exceptionally restricted , yet the children bail me out